Proving that no good deed goes unpunished this new study on Teach For America (TFA) Teachers is proving to be catnip for the program’s detractors. In short, a forthcoming Stanford study finds lower levels of civic activity for Teach For America program completers than for non-completers or applicantswho where accepted but chose not to join the TFA Corps (non-matriculants). I’m pretty sure you could hear the cackling from the AACTE office’s as far away as southern parts of Pennsylvania. The Times writes the study up here. Stanford’s Rob Reich responds with his thoughts here.
But if TFA has anything to be bothered about here, it’s the spin rather than the underlying study itself – and that’s a potential problem in its own right. The Times account does a nice job of laying out the data on the sample for the study but provides less data about the, you know, findings. In the data a few big trends jump out. First, everyone in the study, TFA completers, non-completers, and non-matriculants have substantially higher levels of civic participation relative to the baseline. Second, while some of the differences in participation observed, the “lagging” effect that is getting the attention, are statistically significant, it’s debatable how substantively significant they are. For instance, while 92 percent of the sample overall voted in the last presidential election, only 89 percent of TFA completers did. You decide how much of a problem this is given that these rates are about double the averages for the age-cohort overall. Likewise, completers give to, on average, only 2.2 charitable organizations while dropouts give to 2.6. And it does appear that a small percentage of outliers may be skewing some of the data.
On the other hand, there are some differences between non-matriculators and graduates that are worthy of deeper investigation, particularly as it may relate to the intensity of the TFA experience. In fact, the question battery had 100+ items measuring civic attitudes and TFA completers scored higher on 62 percent of them relative to the other groups. Where they “lagged” is on certain measures of actual civic participation. Learning more about why is important. Obvious explanations include fatigue or a desire for a break, but it could be something else, too.
So the punchline is not anything negative about TFA per se but rather that it’s unclear if the TFA experience increases civic participation (from an already abnormally high level) based on this study. That’s a legitimate question relative to the service movement overall. But it’s not central to TFA’s mission, which is to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students and create a cadre of alums with a firsthand understanding of the educational challenges facing low-income students. In other words, while the civic question is hardly irrelevant, let’s hold TFA accountable for what the organization wants to do via its mission. And please let’s not discourage them from transparency and cooperating on various studies where researchers can glean important pieces of knowledge by taking the results out of context.
By the way, TFA is basically the largest teacher preparation program in the country today. That, among other things, makes it a target. In a new Atlantic article Amanda Ripley looks at the organization’s learning and knowledge base about teacher effectiveness – something too often ignored in all the back and forth.